A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on May 1, 2011.
Psalm 16:1-11; John 20:19-31
Except maybe for a few of the small children in our gathering today, there’s probably not one of us here who doesn’t bear a scar or two. Since it would be unseemly for me to ask about yours, I’ll go ahead and tell you about mine.
There’s the two-inch scar I have inside and just below my left elbow. I was playing baseball with Steve Brummett one afternoon after school. I’d gone with him to his farm, and after helping him with some chores we decided to hit flies to one another. He hit one deep over my head and I turned to chase it down. Just as I caught it, my arm got caught as well... in the rusty barbed-wire fence that divided their farm place.
Every time I look at that scar, I remind myself that, despite the pain, I held on to the ball and did not drop it.
Mom used to tell me I had more stitches in my head than Doanes had liver pills. Boy, that dates me, doesn’t it? Doanes’ Little Liver Pills passed from the scene a long time ago. I was all the time having to be sutured because I’d run into things or things would run into me. That’s not to mention the scars on my left knee from four surgeries since I was fifteen years old.
I attended a conference in Jonesboro this week, and yesterday was sitting next to a friend who told me he had had his knee scoped a couple of weeks ago. He commenced to pull up his pants leg to show me the tiny little scars from his surgery. What could I do? I pulled up my pants leg to show him my scars from previous encounters with a surgeon’s scalpel. Two grown men attending a meeting pulling up their pants and comparing scars!
We who are in the fraternity of knee replacements have long scars down the front of our knees. Mine measures more than seven inches. I admired Jerry Staley’s last year when we had a work-day here at the church. His was nice and thin and white, while mine remained rather pink and was wider. It still is.
Scars. We all bear them. Some we may be proud of. When I had neck surgery in 1993, my neurosurgeon told me that my scar wouldn’t even be noticeable. My response was, “You mean I’m going to all this trouble and won’t even have a scar to show for it?!”
Some scars, of course, are not obvious and are not physical. They are emotional. Those are the scars we so often don’t want anyone else to see.
Jesus certainly had his share of scars, didn’t he?
What is your image of Jesus? Recently, I read a piece by Barbara Brown Taylor in The Christian Century. She wondered about Jesus too. Not about scars, but she questioned whether he ever sang, because she was having trouble finding any reference to that in scripture. “Maybe the Gospel writers did not think singing was important for establishing the identity of the messiah,” she writes. “They certainly did not think laughing was important, because Jesus never laughs in the Gospels either. Maybe the evangelists just wrote down the things they thought were pertinent to making their case – the birth, the teachings, the death, the resurrection – and left out the things they judged incidental, like the fact that Jesus made the best hummus in [the] Galilee or was a wizard at the harmonica.”1
What I wonder about, when it comes to Jesus, has more to do with those years when he was still at home with his mom and dad. We are told that Jesus did not begin his public ministry until he was about thirty years of age. That means he spent much more time at home with his family than he did traveling the roads of Galilee. What did he do in all that time? As he apprenticed at Joseph’s elbow, did he ever cut his hands on a saw or hit his thumb with a hammer? Did his hands slip when he was working a plane, or did he stumble over a piece of wood and scrape his knee? Did Jesus bear the scars of running into things or having things run into him?
But when we think of the scars that Jesus bore, we don’t consider that, do we? No, we are mindful of those scars from the nails driven through his hands on the cross, through his feet as he hung on that Roman tree at Golgotha. The spear that was thrust in his side... those are the scars we think of. Have you considered the irony that Jesus, the Galilean carpenter, was put to death by having nails driven through him, not unlike the nails he must have used when he worked at his carpenter father’s side?
We are told that Jesus showed his scars to his disciples when he first appeared to them. Because he was proud of them, considered them a badge of honor, wanted to have something to show for all he has gone through? Of course not. It was his way of showing them that he was who he was, that as the resurrected Christ he still bore the body he had always had. But we, you and I, might not have made such a big deal of those “nail-scarred hands” were it not for Thomas.
Did you notice that I did not call him “doubting” Thomas? But it was in all our minds, wasn’t it? It is a title he will never ever live down.
John tells us that Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples when the risen Christ appeared to them the first time. And over the years biblical commentators have conjectured and guessed and wondered about where Thomas might have been and why he wasn’t with the others. It really doesn’t make any difference. If John had wanted us to know, he would have told us. Just like he would have recorded that Jesus played the harmonica... if, of course, Jesus had indeed done so.
What is important is that because of his absence, he gets secondhand from his compatriots the wonderful and great news about Jesus being alive. If he could take back what he said to them when they told him, I’m sure he would do it in a New York minute. But he can’t. He spoke these words and John recorded them for the ages... “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas wanted to see – no, Thomas insisted on seeing – the scars. Otherwise, he wasn’t willing to take their word for it.
Are you familiar with Fred Snodgrass? Probably not. He was the center fielder for the New York Giants when they played the Boston Red Sox in the 1912 World Series. The Giants and Sox were tied in the tenth inning of one of the games when a fly ball was hit to Snodgrass. He did not have to contend with a rusty barbed-wire fence. In fact, all he had to do was what he did hundreds of times a day in practice and in games. All he had to do was catch the ball. But, of course, there was an added element to all this. He had to deal with the pressure of the moment... the most important moment of his life... and he dropped the ball. The Red Sox went on to win the game and the series, and that error stuck with Snodgrass the rest of his life. Sixty-two years later, his New York Times obituary read: “Fred Snodgrass, 86, Dead; Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly.”2
Well, Fred Snodgrass has got nothing on Doubting Thomas. Consider the headline: “Thomas the Twin, Disciple of Jesus, Known as the Doubter, Dead at 74.” Forget the tradition that Thomas went on to carry the gospel to places the other disciples didn’t go. Forget that when he did see Jesus for himself, there is no record that he continued to insist on seeing and feeling Jesus’ scars. Forget that he said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas will always, in our minds, remain the doubter. And since we’ve been talking baseball... as the American League has the designated hitter, Thomas has become our designated doubter. As long as we’ve got him, we can talk about his doubts without having to dwell too much on our own.
But, as we said, there are emotional scars too, and because of his insistence on seeing Jesus’ scars, Thomas came up with some of his own as well. Sometimes we run into things, at other times things run into us. And more often than we care to admit, the doubts that plague us remain as scars.
There is an antidote for our doubt, but it is not an easy one. When Thomas does finally say to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”, it could be argued that Jesus doesn’t so easily let him off the hook. “Oh, that’s okay, Thomas. We all have our doubts. It’s a part of life and faith.” No, he doesn’t say that. Instead, he admonishes Thomas by saying, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Jesus is letting Thomas know – and trust me when I tell you that he is looking straight at us as well – that he is not looking for followers who are willing to settle for a secondhand faith. He wants those who are fully committed to him and to his way of life, as difficult as that may sometimes be.
If we’ve been sitting here a bit smugly this morning – after all, it is the week after Easter Sunday... they don’t call this Low Sunday for nothin’, you know – Jesus’ words might just wipe that smirky grin from our faces. We all know that we fall short of fully giving ourselves to the One who so fully gave himself for us. We’ve all, in our own way, demanded to see Jesus’ scars, have made our share of errors by dropping the fly ball. We are all doubters.
Being a Jesus follower is not an easy thing to do. In a New Yorker cartoon, four people are sitting at a table, obviously at a dinner party of some sort. One of the fellows, with a chip in one hand and a beer in the other, says to the others, “I’m in the market for an easier religion.” My friends, there is no such thing as an easy religion... of any kind. And if you think following Jesus is easy, you better think again. Being a Jesus follower means you are going to bear some scars, because the One to whom you have given your allegiance bore them first.
It is right and good that Thomas teaches us the lesson that is it better to come to Jesus later than never at all. All of us have those moments in our lives when Jesus showed up and we were somewhere else. But that’s one of the real joys of Easter. Jesus gives us another opportunity to see his scars. He does not just come to us once and it is done. He comes to us again and again, opening to us his nail-scarred hands, giving us yet again an opportunity to follow him. In fact, I wonder if Jesus didn’t come back that second time just for Thomas... just so the Doubter could have the opportunity to see for himself that what he had been told about Jesus was indeed true.
We weren’t there then, you and I. But that was just as true of those for whom John first penned his gospel. They weren’t there either, and they needed assurance, not only that the stories John was telling them were true, but that Jesus’ scars were made for them too. “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Believe what? That Christ will come back, just as he did for Thomas, and will claim us for himself.
I have one more scar to tell you about, if you don’t mind. It is on the back of my right hand, a narrow, white scar... again, about an inch long. One day, when visiting with our grandsons in Georgia – well, truth be told, we visited with our daughter and her husband too – I was tussling with Alex, our oldest. He jumped over the back of the couch and across my right shoulder. As he did, his jagged fingernail (he is a boy, don’t you know) came across my hand and cut me. For some reason, because it is near blood vessels, I suppose, it was hard for me to get it to stop bleeding. And because of that, it resulted in this scar.
But I don’t mind it because, every time I look at it, that scar reminds me of my love for my grandson, a love that runs so deep that, if I had to do it, I would willingly give up my life to save his.
I know that’s a weak comparison, but a comparison nonetheless. To what extent does Jesus not mind the scars in his hands, in his feet, in his side, because of his love for us? Perhaps that’s a question we can ask him one day because – even though we have not seen him – like Thomas and Mary and all the rest of his disciples, we too will see the Lord. Because, some day, he’ll come back and claim us for his own. and offer to us his nail-scarred hand.
Lord, we believe but ask you to helps us in our unbelief. Offer us your hand of grace, that we might take it gladly and walk with you. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, “Faith Matters: And Jesus Sang,” The Christian Century, April 19, 2011, p. 35.
2adapted from James Harnish, “Living By the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary,” The Christian Century, April 6, 2010, p. 21.